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Is there a correct gender-neutral, singular pronoun (“his” versus “her” versus “their”)?

I am linking to this post for reference.

The acceptability of "they" as a singular pronoun is growing. Has it grown to the point where it is acceptable in formal publications, such as journal articles, business proposals, or political speeches?

It seems to be that it is not quite there; most people are still too concerned about being negatively judged for it. However, the options of "one", "he or she", and "s/he" are similarly avoided for their cumbersome and pedantic tones. I often see either "he" or "she" used exclusively as an alternative, however, as there is no official stance on one pronoun or the other referring to either or, this opens the door for issues of implicit gender discrimination.

I try my best to skirt the issue altogether when I write, often dramatically revising paragraph -- and even paper-- structure. This, of course, is ridiculous. What is the best option for communicating the very commonly needed genderless singular personal pronoun in formal situations?

  • 2
    I'm not sure how this is different from the other question. Are you asking whether things have changed since nohat answered a year ago?
    – Robusto
    Oct 15 '11 at 18:37
  • @Robusto: the other post seemed to be geared towards an informal setting. I wanted to know if the same advice held in a formal context.
    – OctaviaQ
    Oct 15 '11 at 19:20
  • The other post answers that as well. Non-agreement of number is not for formal speech or writing.
    – Robusto
    Oct 15 '11 at 20:01
  • 1
    I'm backing @Robusto's position even more strongly than he does. I think this is a duplicate. Oct 15 '11 at 22:14
  • If you do not see a value-add of this question over the linked one, then you are of course free to close it or vote to close it.
    – OctaviaQ
    Oct 16 '11 at 3:58

According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, "they" as a common-gender pronoun is "perfectly well established, even in formal contexts."

  • Actually, the singular they comes more from formal contexts than anywhere else. Jan 10 '16 at 2:23

If it's growing, it's because of the need, following social developments in the twentieth century, for a gender-neutral pronoun, but it's been used by respected writers for centuries. If you really can't bring yourself to use it, or if you fear it will annoy your readers, then putting the antecedent itself in the plural will often be the answer.

  • As usual, Barrie is right on the money. Let me add that the meaning of prepositions has changed and probably will continue to change. For me to address you as "you" two hundred years ago would have seemed very odd and inappropriate. In the past this pronoun was reserved for addressing our "betters", and to use it in an egalitarian way would be very odd indeed. This T-V distinction has gone completely in English, but remains in other languages such as French or Spanish. Notably though, in both these languages it is slowly diminishing in importance as societies become more egalitarian.
    – Fraser Orr
    Oct 16 '11 at 18:02

I just signed up for a free temporary subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style. They are very clear that the singular they only acceptable in informal contexts. It is not acceptable in formal use. They also say that the universal "he" is unacceptable. They have a list of ways to avoid the issue by restructuring sentences. IMHO, it's pretty ridiculous. Can they be petitioned?


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